The genius of Steve Lacy’s “Bad Habit”

It’s been a strange year for popular music. In winter, a chaotically catchy cha-cha medley from a Disney movie won the No. 1 song title in the world. Then a 37-year-old anthem from one of music‘s great eccentrics, Kate Bush, did the same.

Right now, another singular track is making a surprising rise up the charts, though this time the hit also depicts a familiar event: an up-and-coming talent’s breakout moment. The artist is Steve Lacy, a 24-year-old guitarist and singer from Compton, California. The song is “Bad Habit”, which simultaneously sounds like something the Beach Boys might have featured in the 60s, Prince might have covered in the 80s, and college rock radio might have played in the 90s – but it probably could have only exploded today.

Lacy has been buzzing in the music industry for a while now. After becoming a music nerd as a child thanks to the video game Guitar Hero, he joined The Internet, the soon-to-be Grammy-nominated R&B group, when he was just 16 years old. Soon after, he collaborated with Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, and Vampire Weekend. But his sound sets him apart more than his resume. Lacy does soulful, smart stoner rock with relaxed rhythms and subtle melodies. It’s vibrant music, great for playing in the background, until listeners realize just how deep Lacy’s craftsmanship has sunk into them.

“Bad Habit”, a single from Lacy’s second album, Gemini Rights, clearly hits people on many levels. Released at the end of June, the track reached number 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 1 on the same publication’s streaming chart. Hundreds of thousands of TikTok videos use the song (or sped up remixes), but no single meme dominates. Some users define “bad habit” on mundane arts and crafts. Others film themselves showing the emotions of which Lacy sings. In a video sketch, a guy nods to the song, then finds another version of himself crying.

Given this popularity, a first-time listener might be surprised at how badly the song sounds. The drums slap nonchalantly as Lacy’s guitar riff rises and falls, reminiscent of a struggling car engine. Lacy sings a bit like a nervous child in a school competition, both languid and flat. Still, intriguing sound effects and rich vocal harmonies (some provided by vocalist Fousheé) add texture to the whole thing. The instruments eventually cut out for 10 seconds of unaccompanied crooning, before a new groove, built on an energetic electronic beat, brought the song out.

Music back and forth and somewhere else suits Lacy’s words. The chorus, “I wish you knew you wanted me,” is kind of brilliant: a seven-word tragedy in the subjunctive, a double meaning of regret and hope, a knot of desire on desire. The verses talk about wanting someone unreachable and then getting to them, but that’s not a fairy tale. At times, Lacy seems shy (“I thought you were too good for me, honey”) and sweet (from two lovers, “It’s cookies, it’s gravy”). At other times, he’s perverted (“Can I bite your tongue?”) and cruel (“Now that you’re back, I can’t decide…if you’re invited”).

The title of the album Gemini Rights hints that Lacy’s mercurial sensibility is defined by the stars and celebrates how central that sensibility is to him. Hardly the show-off that Guitar Hero could have formed him, Lacy uses his instrumental expertise to blur the lines between warm and sad, heartwarming and weird. The lineage of black soul music, passing through doo-wop and D’Angelo, is omnipresent in his work, but so is the fuzzy and emotionally slippery indie rock like that of Pixies. In many cases, the best parts of his songs are outros, in which pitched riffs and choruses meld together for a slow peaking high.

Perhaps her ambivalent cutie mark fits our times. In recent years, Lacy and some contemporaries – Omar Apollo, Cuco, Rex Orange County – have given the impression of a fuzzy-headed rock and R&B subgenre coming of age after early Frank Ocean breakthroughs and in the mid-2010s. This sound is, among other things, useful: a ready-made nostalgia to thrill the montages of last weekend on social networks. Lacy’s mix of lyrical seriousness and saucyness also feels rather youthful and in line, the expression of someone with a lot of feeling and a lot of attitude. “I gave you a chance and some dopamine,” he sings on “Sunshine,” a highlight of Gemini Rights. “Safe to say, after me, you peaked.”

Lacy is also, like many members of his generation, queer, with songs that sing about both men and women. It can be argued that the sexuality informs the category-blending sound that makes him a star, but the identity labels aren’t really the point of his appeal. “Bad Habit,” certainly, doesn’t need to mention any particular genre to show how a new cohort can rewrite old scripts. The bad habit that Lacy sings about is biting your tongue, shutting down your feelings – a behavior that year after year seems less fashionable.

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